Why the Religious Discrimination Bill will reverse women’s rights

Why the Religious Discrimination Bill will reverse women’s rights

Religious Discrimination Bill

At a time that women in Australia have been rallying against the Government’s response to sexual violence, fuel is about to be tipped onto the women’s rights fire. 

If the Morrison Government brings back its notorious Religious Discrimination Bill in 2021, as Michaelia Cash has suggested, the Morrison Government will have permanently sealed its fate with many women voters.

The problem with the Bill was that instead of preventing discrimination against people of faith, it allowed discrimination in the name of faith.

While media reports have focussed on the issues raised by the LGBTIQ+ community about this Bill, the intersectional concerns of women in Australia need to be heard.

In the current political environment it is hard to believe that the Government will introduce a Bill which is so detrimental to women. In what will be one of the greatest reversals in Australian women’s rights this century, the Bill will take away hard-fought-for protections in the workplace and in health care.  

The Bill would allow so-called “statements of belief” to override all workplace codes of conduct, and even anti-bullying laws in some states.

For example, a man in a management position could take to social media to deplore the single relationship status of one of his women staff members, or to condemn women in his office for being employed outside the home.

A single mother who, when dropping her child off at day-care, could be told by a day-care worker that she is sinful for being divorced.

In these cases, and many more like them, the person casting aspersions would be protected by the Bill.

Given our work in women’s health services, we are particularly concerned about the Bill’s impact on women accessing essential healthcare.

The Bill provides a “conscientious objection” for all healthcare providers in regard to any treatment they find objectionable. This enables health care providers to refuse treatment women need, even when these are medically necessary, without referral onto another healthcare provider.

For example, a pharmacist could refuse to provide the emergency contraceptive pill or refuse to dispense hormone treatment; a doctor could intentionally misgender a patient or refuse to prescribe contraceptives; and a GP could tell a patient who has been sexually assaulted that she invited the abuse because of her appearance or behaviour.

The Bill also allows healthcare providers to refuse to provide necessary health information, or even a refuse referral to a doctor who might provide the information.

Under the Bill health care providers could say things that are offensive to women patients – misogynistic, victim blaming, stigmatising statements.

Indeed, the Bill allows health professionals to express beliefs to patients that cause them psychological harm, including to a level that is defined in law as causing ‘distress, grief, fear or anger’.

How bad could it get?

Both drafts of the Bill have allowed ‘justifiable’ adverse impacts on patients if decisions or statements are made based on religious beliefs. In an attempt to define this, the second draft of the Bill says harm is considered unjustifiable if it results in death or serious injury.  Minor or moderate injury or harm to patient health and wellbeing is therefore permissible.

It has never been clear why the Bill has had such a focus on health professionals.

A health professional’s right to conscientious objection is already entrenched in legislation (such as various state and territory acts legislating access to termination of pregnancy and end of life processes) and professional codes of conduct.

Rolling back equity in employment and healthcare threatens to re-stigmatise women in all of our diversity, and revivify the chauvinism that we hoped was on the wane.

We call on the more moderate and sensible members of the Government to make sure the Religious Discrimination Bill is dropped altogether.

Make the canning of the Bill a turning point in the Morrison Government’s relationship with Australian women.

We also call on Labor Opposition to say clearly that it will vote as a bloc against this retrograde legislation.

Show us you care about women’s lives, our health and our safety.


Bonney Corbin is the National Chair of the Australian Women’s Health Network. Bonney is an urban and regional planner with postgraduate qualifications in public policy and conflict resolution. Bonney works at Marie Stopes Australia as their Head of Policy, having worked at the intersections of women’s rights, gender-based violence and determinants of health in Australia, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the South Pacific. Her other board appointments include Genetic Alliance Australia and Violence Prevention Australia.

Jo Flanagan is the CEO of Women’s Health Tasmania and is on the board of the Australian Women’s Health Network. In addition to a background working in women’s services, Jo managed Tasmania’s largest NGO social policy unit for 15 years and has worked extensively in social policy, advocacy and research. Jo is part of the Tasmanian Foetal Alcohol Syndrome State Coordinating Group, the Tasmanian Government’s Family Violence Consultative Group, and is co-Chair of the Tasmanian Sexual and Reproductive Health Collaborative Group.

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